It's a common truism that horror stories reflect the specific fears and paranoias of their respective eras, intentionally or not. That's certainly the case with three new streaming horror offerings, which have such remarkably similar set-ups that I'm tempted to coin a new subgenre: Airbnb horror.
OK, so maybe it's not all that new. It's really just a variation on the standard slasher movie premise, which you could fill out like a MadLibs puzzle: A group of [pretty, charismatic people, though one of them is usually troubled and/or has a questionable past] heads off to an isolated [creepy locale] for a weekend getaway. They usually drink [liquor of choice] and take some [drug of choice] and, right when their guard is down, they're menaced by a [spooky threat] that knocks them off one by one.
Whether it's a masked killer lurking in the woods, a demonic force unleashed from the basement, an unexplained phenomenon or a combination of the three, the formula is timeless. Murder, rinse, repeat.
Airbnb horror isn't much of a departure from this tried-and-true template, except its isolated locale is the type of place that doesn't seem scary. It's not an abandoned cabin or a cursed summer camp or a creepy roadside motel: It's that beautiful three-story house you booked for a weekend stay through an app, with big picture windows and a bright, open kitchen and gorgeous views of a beach or rolling hills or a dense thicket of woods somewhere in Vermont.
I've been watching a lot of horror in the last few months — maybe it's a weird response to the hopelessness of current world affairs — and I can't help it: I start projecting all the uncertainty of 2020 onto the bloody and brutal stories on the screen.
This was no truer than a recent binge of three new streaming horror releases — The Beach House, The Rental and You Should Have Left — which are all about isolated getaways that turn surreal and violent real quick. Despite having nearly identical first acts, they're all remarkably different in their intentions, and while all three films were written, produced and shot long before international lockdowns, they inadvertently manifest the fears currently dominating our collective conscience.
Let's break 'em down one at a time.
I'll start with You Should Have Left, an awkward title that almost sounds like a first-draft version of Get Out. Of these three films, it's the one that deviates most from the template I laid out above, but it still boasts a lot of the hallmarks of Airbnb horror.
Consider: It begins as Kevin Bacon, playing a dude with a questionable past, travels to an isolated modernist house in the Welsh countryside with his wife (Amanda Seyfried) and young daughter. They're hoping for a relaxing weekend, but this house has other plans: It has unusual architecture — hallways that seem to go nowhere, hidden rooms, mysterious doors, that sort of thing — and scary Polaroids pop up around the place and then vanish.
Discussing too much more would veer into spoiler territory, but the whole thing turns out to be an allegory for midlife crisis that channels distinctly male, upper-class anxieties. But none of it would have happened if they'd never booked that vacation home.
Another disastrous getaway takes place in The Beach House, but it's way more insanely timely. A boyfriend and girlfriend spontaneously head to his uncle's seaside cottage for a weekend getaway. The tiny town is virtually vacant; no one will bother them. Once there, they discover that an older couple, supposedly friends of the aforementioned uncle, had already been given the go-ahead to stay for the same weekend.
But after they all take edibles (should be relaxing, right?), a weird fog descends on the house, and it causes the older folks to act... strangely. That's right: It's an airborne pathogen, turning those exposed to it into zombies, and the only way to avoid it is to stay indoors and stay away from people. Sound familiar? Even your cozy little seaside villa isn't safe!
The Rental is the best movie of this bunch, and it is, thus far, the definitive 2020 example of the Airbnb horror film. It's the directorial debut of actor Dave Franco, who does a serviceable job behind the camera and ratchets up tension through the intrapersonal drama before plunging us into an ice-bath of startling slasher violence.
The Airbnb in question is a stunning house right on the beach, with a wraparound deck and a jacuzzi and a cozy living room. Two couples book it for the weekend, and even though the property owner (underrated character actor Toby Huss) creeps them out, they're focused on blowing off some steam. But some unspoken tension bubbles to the surface, everyone takes MDMA, an illicit affair begins, and someone discovers a hidden camera in the shower.
And that's all before the killer with a claw hammer shows up.
This might seem like a timeless premise, but The Rental has 2020's fingerprints all over it. Because of social distancing, so many of us are disappearing into the open air of the wilderness, hiding out in Airbnbs for a weekend to escape the stresses of the world (and other people). But in this case, all those anxieties and problems follow right along behind you, and there's no one around to help you.
Pretty scary stuff. ♦
You Should Have Left and The Rental are available to rent on Amazon and Google Play. The Beach House is streaming on Shudder.